It’s a shame that a headline like this, from BoxingScene.com, would even be necessary: “America, Roy Jones, Finally See Best Of Joe Calzaghe.” And yet, prior to Saturday’s drubbing of Jones, Calzaghe was a virtual unknown in the United States. SportsCenter, in previewing the fight, gave a little list of facts about Calzaghe’s career; Jones needed no such introduction. A friend who follows boxing casually seemed surprised when I told him Calzaghe was the favorite; he simply hadn’t heard of him, and it wasn’t my friend’s fault.
It’s not about parochial “Calzaghe has to come prove yourself in America” silliness. Calzaghe can draw around 50,000 fans fighting in his native Wales, so why shouldn’t he primarily fight out of his homeland? Madison Square Garden was packed with Brits chanting Calzaghe’s name, and the crowd of nearly 15,000 defied the low expectations for this fight, criticized as it was by hardcore fans and coming amid harsh economic conditions. Even if a lot of those tickets were given away, there were, it seems, plenty of Welshmen who were willing to spend money on expensive airline tickets.
What’s most tragic about the headline is that it took so long for anyone to see the best of Joe Calzaghe. Certainly, he’s always been popular back home, and his visibility would have been higher here had he fought in America prior to this year, but Calzaghe is to blame for no one seeing “Calzaghe’s best” until recently. The reason is that his career, before 2006, was largely a waste. After claiming his super middleweight (168 lbs.) belt from Chris Eubank, he put together a lengthy but otherwise unremarkable title reign. His best opponent over that time was Robin Reid. No offense to Robin Reid, but if he’s the best opponent on you resume in an eight year span, you could be doing better.
Instead, Calzaghe on the verge of age 34 finally proved he wasn’t a stereotypical overprotected European champion by thrashing Jeff Lacy. Since then, he’s defeated a prime Mikkel Kessler and an aging but still potent Bernard Hopkins, plus thrown in Jones for good measure. Jones is the least of those wins, even though by all accounts Jones fought with considerable heart. Jones hasn’t had a win over top-flight competition in about five years, and Felix Trinidad doesn’t count. Jones looked good enough beating Trinidad to earn a top-10 ranking at light heavyweight (175 lbs.), but Trinidad was rusty and doughy at his career-high weight. Jones is the biggest name on Calzaghe’s resume, so that counts for something. But it doesn’t make him the top pound-for-pound man in the sport, as some are now suggesting. That honor still belongs to Manny Pacquiao (lightweight, 135 lbs.) and Calzaghe now deserves to be at #2. If Pacquiao loses to Oscar De La Hoya at 147 lbs. in December, I think Calzaghe takes the top spot, even if Pacquiao doesn’t deserve to drop very far for losing to such a bigger man.
But there’s another “if” in all this, and it’s whether Calzaghe ever fights again. I wouldn’t be surprised to see either Calzaghe or Jones in the ring another time or two, despite Calzaghe’s retirement talk. I’m not thrilled about the idea of Calzaghe fighting anyone right now besides Chad Dawson, although a rematch with Hopkins would be a meaningful bout with the potential to be better than the first one, given Hopkins’ apparent commitment to fight more aggressively. Calzaghe’s going to take a rest, then decide his next step.
If this is the end, I’ll feel a tinge of sadness. The way Calzaghe fights — he earned the nickname “Slappy Joe” fair and square — is not everyone’s cup of tea. But he’s a damn good boxer. A true great. You just have to shake your head about him taking so long to show it, then, perhaps, departing shortly after making the point.